Jeanne Gang, the founder of Studio Gang Architects, has made a name for herself as a designer who can design both show-stopping skyscrapers and sensitive small-scale buildings. From her breakout 2009 Aqua Tower project, to the hypothetical “Polis Station” proposal presented at last year's Chicago Architecture Biennial, Gang has established herself as perhaps Chicago's leading architect.
Gang is also included as part of Vladimir Belogolovsky's ongoing City of Ideas exhibition tour, representing Chicago among 9 other significant architects, each from a different global city. With the exhibition currently in Gang's home city at the Chicago Design Museum until February 25th, here as part of his City of Ideas column on ArchDaily Belogolovsky presents a shortened version of the interview featured in the exhibition.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You position yourself as someone who is more focused on problem solving rather than on projecting a signature style. Working on your projects here in New York—the extension of the American Museum of Natural History, a new office building on the High Line and Rescue Company 2 for the New York Fire Department in Brooklyn—what are the main problems that you are addressing?
Jeanne Gang: I don’t think every project is about solving societal problems—sometimes there really isn’t a major problem, it’s just somebody who wants a building. However, I am interested in certain persistent problems and how architecture can be a medium we can use to speak about broader issues and actually make people think about them differently. Climate change and social connectivity are issues I find interesting and important to us and they happen to be very relevant in today’s society.
VB: Could you give an example of how you push for that kind of relevance here in New York?
JG: In a project like the Solar Carve Tower on the High Line, we are commenting on the primary importance of public space, even when that space is mid-block and not protected by typical set-back zoning. It is typical for New York to have three architects working on any given project: a zoning architect (who is working out a building envelop), a design architect (who does the facades), and an interiors architect. We would normally fall into the second category, but with this division of labor, there isn’t much opportunity to comment on zoning and thus inspire change. For Solar Carve, we have been able to play all three roles. We noticed that new buildings around our site were beginning to crowd the High Line’s solar access and that if we were to follow traditional zoning requirements we would be contributing to that kind of destruction of the public realm. So we sculpted our building using the angles of the sun. In other words, our building is shaped in response to solar access for the adjacent public space hence the name, Solar Carve Tower. We treated the High Line as public space to be protected by not blocking its sunlight. Taking on the zoning envelope on this particular site makes the project relevant beyond the specific building we are designing.
VB: You went to the University of Illinois, then ETH in Zurich, and then Harvard. Are there particular reasons why you went to these schools and were there any professors or architects that influenced you most while you were still a student?
JG: I grew up in Illinois so first, I went to the University of Illinois. I was interested in engineering, and I discovered architecture when I signed up for a studio and found myself hooked. [Laughs.] But what really galvanized my interest in architecture was my study abroad course. In Europe, I discovered the deep history and culture, which are embedded in Architecture and architecture’s reciprocal influence on it. Architecture also connected my wide variety of interests in making, geometry, materials, cities, nature, and people.
After Illinois, I studied urbanism as a visiting scholar at the ETH in Zurich. And I discovered many projects that were being designed at that time, such as the Parc de la Villette competition entry by OMA [Paris, France, 1982]. I also went to many lectures and reviews, including ones by Zaha Hadid. I liked her incredible drawings and how her mind was working.
Simultaneously, as an assistant to a professor at the ETH, I gained insight to an approach that starts with material—along the lines of the Bauhaus. I can see how this and my later experience teaching at IIT influenced my work with materials. In my practice now we often explore material qualities—how wood can be bent, how concrete can be fluid, or how steel can be flexible. But this is also related to other experiences I had at Harvard under then-Director Rafael Moneo and later Mack Scogin, where history and theory were being emphasized. After graduating from Harvard in 1993, I felt ready to start my own practice but I wanted to first work for someone I really respected.
VB: And that was Rem Koolhaas.
JG: Yes, Rem and OMA was my first choice. I worked at OMA’s Rotterdam office and on building sites in France from 1993 to 1995. At the same time, I worked on a couple of projects on my own and with artists, also in Rotterdam. And before opening my own practice in 1997 in Chicago, I taught at IIT and I worked there for a couple of years at Booth Hansen before getting my professional license. Later, I was joined by Mark Schendel whom I had met at OMA.
VB: Were there good opportunities to start your practice in Chicago?
JG: Yes, and I always wanted to build big buildings, and somehow, I had impressions that I could do it there. It was probably naïve...
VB: And then it happened. [Laughs.] What was the coolest project you worked on, while at OMA?
JG: I was the lead designer on Maison Bordeaux [Bordeaux, France, 1994-98].
VB: The famous elevator house, what a great project! And who came up with the elevator idea?
JG: Well, we knew we needed an elevator because the house was built for a client who had been seriously injured in a car accident. One day, at a meeting in Rem’s Rotterdam office, we watched container barges passing by on the Nieuwe Maas. Every time a barge came close to the bridge, the captain’s cabin lowered down on a singular hydraulic cylinder to clear beneath the bridge. So Rem said, “Jeanne, why don’t you talk to the people who make these cabins?” We were looking for alternatives to traditional elevators, which require solid wall enclosures. We were looking for something much more open. It turned out to be the technology we used for the house.
VB: Your work is not about iconic forms, as was the focus of architects from the late 90s until the 2007-8 world economic crises. Instead, it is more about problem solving and addressing social and sustainability issues. Where did this idea of using architecture as a tool for solving problems come to you?
JG: I was always a huge observer of relationships, both between people and between people and their environment. When one is very attentive to nature and ecology, one realizes it’s all about relationships, not about examining objects on their own. For me, architecture is about changing the way people are interconnected. That’s the most exciting part of architecture. I think of architecture as a system; how you set up various opportunities for people to relate to one another, and to be empowered. What are the opportunities for people to interact? How can buildings spark new relationships? This could be through spaces or materials, both old and new, low or high technologies, I pull from everything to find what works best. There is an art to this approach and to constantly honing and adapting one’s methodology.
VB: Your particular solutions come from research and work on projects. But where else do you derive your inspirations from? Are there artists or architects that you follow?
JG: Interesting... I always go back to the work of Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. Specifically, a touchstone project for me and my studio is her SESC Pompéia building in São Paulo. It’s urban, it brings together very different people, and it fantastically reinvents so many public programs within what used to be an industrial factory. This is just one project, and I like many works by Brazilian modernists like Vilanova Artigas and Paulo Mendes da Rocha. And, of course, being from Chicago, I greatly admire Sullivan, Wright, Mies... Yes, there are many influences. Still, many influences come directly from working on projects and from sources that are not specifically architectural. If you have a curious mind, anything can potentially inform and affect a project.
VB: Will Alsop said that the art of architecture is putting everything together in your own way. Are you at all interested in finding your own personal way and do you have an artistic agenda apart from the client’s requirements?
JG: My artistic agenda is process driven, but admittedly, it also has formal invention. I think it comes through but I always try to hold off my formal impressions for as long as possible. I want to avoid having any random tendencies and intuitions. I do that on purpose so that the projects can continue to develop through this process. Because my work is really about helping a person, organization, or city move to the next level, I have to be able first to listen to what they are saying.
VB: Does this mean that your expression as an architect is suppressed and comes as secondary?
JG: I wouldn’t say so. Well, in terms of time, it is secondary. But it is important to me to reveal things. If you look at our work, it is always about revealing structure, revealing materials. Showing how things can be light or lighter. I am very interested in space itself, the relation of light and shadow. The tactile qualities. All that is very important, but our process is not about making something intuitive and turning it into the right solution. Because I feel that it would take away some important part of the gestation process.
VB: Let’s talk about your 82-story residential Aqua Tower in Chicago that has different floor plate outlines used as balconies. I understand that the shape of each floor was dependent on the impact of the wind and the building’s balconies provoke an unusual social interaction. But wouldn’t you agree that the initial idea was purely artistic to achieve a certain image?
JG: No, I wouldn’t agree with that. I would say, the form is important but that’s not how the idea was hatched. As a precursor, I was interested in how tall buildings could be more social and less isolating, more specific with respect to their context and less generic. We had a site, which was buried in the city, surrounded by very tall buildings. The initial idea was to create hills and valleys, so to speak, on the facades of the building, so the occupants could see more of the views from the building. But then, how do you inhabit that topography? That prompted the idea of slicing the hills into horizontal layers, and making those exterior spaces into distinct balconies, all of them unique—each shaped and determined by the wind impact and creating spaces for better social interaction. So there were many factors. You could say it was done as a parametric model, but with social and environmental purpose rather than iteration for form’s sake. There is nothing random about the building’s shape. Each slight iteration was done for the benefit of the people who live there.
VB: Well, I am not questioning any of the design sequence steps and your intentions. I think it is a brilliant building. What I am saying is that the initial idea was, nevertheless, an artistic vision, an intuitive vision, if you will. And I will tell you why I think so. Now you are designing an even taller building also in Chicago, the 95-story Vista Tower. It has similar wind conditions, similar program, and there are many tall buildings around it. But your solution for that building is completely different. There are no “hills” and “valleys.” Why is that?
JG: It is a different building; a different site and different program, with different opportunities. It follows a different line of research about tall buildings and public space. Our design was a direct response to the fact that this new tower is located right on the border between a public waterfront park and a dense city. This condition prompted the initial idea: How do we lift the building so that people can connect on the ground level? That’s how the three-stem form was derived. The two outer stems support the center one, so the public can access the Riverfront and Wacker Drive on two separate levels right below the building. So it was about providing an unusual public space bridging two different sides of the building. And we developed a particular building block, shaped like a truncated pyramid, which we flipped and stacked one on top of another and nested together side by side to introduce more corner apartments and unexpected views. I often start these large projects with smaller parts and then build up the form from there. Aqua does this too if you think about the slab as a building element that stacks up to form a building. I never try to produce an iconic image such as a cartoon of a sail or a ship that would guide the design of the whole project. No, we don’t do that. [Laughs.]
VB: This is all great, but, let’s say, you were commissioned to do the third very tall tower in Chicago. Wouldn’t you agree that you would find a way not to repeat yourself and come up with something yet completely different?
JG: Being sensitive to the specifics of each project makes architecture interesting but I see our responses as part of a set of interests. Sure, my interests are wide, but not infinite. We learn our lessons and after a number of projects, certain patterns can be detected. There are different lines of research that run through our work, and some projects are more related than others. Not every project is completely different. For example, we developed a whole type of building that we call “exo-spatial,” where we explore spatial possibilities outside of the building’s envelope, like with the Aqua Tower. So there are morphologies of building types that we have developed and draw from.
VB: There are different types and morphologies, but you would not repeat the same idea twice, right?
JG: Sure, we try to come up with different solutions and forms. But I see the ideas as being free of the forms.
VB: What words would you choose to describe your work?
JG: Let’s see—people-centric, ecological, spatial, revealing something unexpected, communicative, thought provoking, tectonic, and beautiful.
VB: Beauty, at last!
JG: It’s a kind of unpretentious beauty, but yes, it is still there. [Laughs.]
VB: You said that you see architecture not as buildings but as links to ecosystem and to how people live. Could you elaborate on that?
JG: I see buildings as facilitators of relationships. I am also interested in exploring how specific sites and climates can affect design. There are always universal aspects to architecture, but I like teasing out the specifics and the differences. For example, when I was teaching at the IIT, I remember how there were design courses that gave a program but no site. It was like the professors were asking students to design a project in a vacuum.
VB: You would never do that.
JG: Of course not!
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s column, City of Ideas, introduces ArchDaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions are a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title which premiered at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.